New Research on Decision Fatigue

by Venkat on August 24, 2011

There is a very interesting article in the New York Times  on the phenomenon of “decision fatigue.”

Decision fatigue is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy. He was vague about the details, though, and quite wrong about some of them (like his idea that artists “sublimate” sexual energy into their work, which would imply that adultery should be especially rare at artists’ colonies). Freud’s energy model of the self was generally ignored until the end of the century, when Baumeister began studying mental discipline in a series of experiments, first at Case Western and then at Florida State University.

These experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser. Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation.

Commentary: I haven’t yet thought this through since it is recent research, but in Tempo-terms, it seems to fit in with the general notion of the momentum and entropy of mental models. If you forcibly steer the momentum through an effort of will, you increase entropy and make the narrative less controllable further downstream.

This goes into the hopper for some serious future examination.

David Locke August 24, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Entropy is a physical concept, so it follows the notion of energy falling to zero. But, biological systems do the opposite until they die and become physical systems. Taken to economics you have a zero-sum, competitive game in the physical, and the non-zero-sum, collaborative game of the biological.

Since a concept or idea can only be expressed as a conceptualization, a collection of concepts, you would have some choices in the dissipation, distribution, and amplification of the momentum and entropy of mental models. You chose the game, the distributions, the containment and other structuring architectural elements, and the spatial-temporal aspects.

Argentine tango looks like a ballroom dance, but it is quantized, has zero momentum, and achieves its moves through explosions of torsion built up between the partners in the dance.

Gregory Rader | August 25, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Interesting evolutionary principles could be inferred from that proposal…

I am going to guess that willpower primarily takes place in the neo-cortex, though I don’t know that for sure. So the message would seem to be – it increases evolutionary fitness to be able to overpower your more primitive instincts to a certain extent, but not completely. People with too much willpower would presumably choose to do too many things that are maladaptive…for example, abstaining from sex and the dangerous competition for mates that may have accompanied it.

RG August 29, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Of the two concepts I detect here, one seems to align with experience and the other doesn’t.

Too much exertion of willpower may result in an unexpected burst of control reminds me of all those cases of a disciplinarian discovered later to have a secret hobby or tendency of the opposite kind. Many highly productive individuals do seem to have regular outlets for fun where they let go freely. It seems to suggest something like: better to cry watching a movie than give up data gathering for a major plan.

But thinking of energy as a fixed quantity that may get used up in creative endeavors is too simplistic. If we conserve too much of this, it leads to a self-fulfilling spiral of inactivity and less creativity and less energy. Some investment of effort and mini-progress creates momentum and increases the energy available. Being creative in a fun way on small daily activities could presumably put one in a better frame of mind for tackling more serious challenges requiring creativity.

skunk1980 January 13, 2012 at 3:42 am

Consider reviewing these, both by evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, Ph.D.

Glucose Is Not Willpower Fuel —

Does the Brain Consume Additional Glucose During Self-Control Tasks? —

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